Handling ‘the Mahinda Phenomenon’

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‘Mahinda phenomenon’ is not rocket science or a magic of Medamulana ‘Mahinda phenomenon’ is not rocket science or a magic of Medamulana

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the only head of state under the current constitution of Sri Lanka who was defeated at a presidential election while in office. He could have remained in office for another two years. All his predecessors left office either by end of two terms or by death. Why does a defeated president still seem interested in centering himself around power? The reason evident might be the very powerful argument and a slogan evoked by the Vasu-Wimal-Bandula-Gammanpila, ‘gang of four’ about 5.8 million voter consent for Rajapaksa as a legitimate power base.  Their claim is that their democratic rights must also be respected, hence to honor Rajapaksa’s leadership, even though such an arrangement brings no gains within a democracy. One of the features in democracy is that the majority rules. The ‘gang of four’ somehow turned Rajapaksa’s defeat into something hitherto unknown in Sri Lankan politics. This made the regime’s first 100-day program impossible and President Maithripala Sirisena had to go round pleading for political sanity. This was symbolic of the demeanor of his own style which he showcased when he addressed the nation on the day of the completion of 100 day program.

Mahinda Enigma
Interestingly, Rajapaksa was the reason for the early presidential election, and it was he who was to be ousted by the common candidate. Even though the common candidate won the election the former president remains the most discussed personality ever since his defeat. Before the presidential election he was the centre of attraction. During the election he remained the centre of controversy. Even after the election, he continues politically to be the most popular politician, ahead of president Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe. Mahinda has not yet declared his consent to contest at the coming elections even despite three mass rallies being conducted in Nugegoda, Kandy and Ratnapura. The next is scheduled in Kurunegala on May 8 by the above ‘gang of four’.

The current regime’s own unresolvable political headache is Rajapaksa (Mahinda). The problem that the current government has created for itself is also Rajapaksa. The regime has almost become structurally phobic when it comes to the former president. It’s almost like a pathological condition among some members of the ruling party when they speak in public, engrossed in an unpalatable appetite of uncouth politics which in fact is politically unnecessary for the presidential conduct of Sirisena, who displays a mediocre attitude in his political behavior. However, the problem facing the current president is that he cannot by pass those who brought him to power, the UNP and to some extent the JVP, the Muslim parties and the Tamil block vote sponsored by the TNA in the North and East.

What is the reason for ‘the Mahinda phenomenon’ to be attracting such a political clout over and above a president who won a majority vote? Unfortunately the president also seems to suffer from a political Schizophrenia, his four decades of SLFP’s DNA and the new identity as the common candidate which brought to bear the burden of his own former regime of the UPFA and his long term rival party, the UNP. The classic example of his feeling of ‘political in betweeness’ was displayed when he arrived at the parliament to ‘unburden’ his promise to commence the debate on the 19th amendment. There he found his comrade SLFPers refusing to move from the middle space of the chamber. He perhaps reluctantly, but in a dignified way folded his papers (unfinished, not translated at that point as reported ) and had to yet again discuss with the vociferous and rebellious lot. His sacking of some of the members of the SLFP central committee did not do him any good and the president had to bow down to his hard core members of the UPFA/ SLFP on 21 April 2015. His sacking of those members of the central committee made him look like the Executive was un-presidential, because everything is flaunted publicly.
 Rajapaksa gathered more clout with this parliamentary opposition. The central reason for this Satyagraha inside the chambers and on the parliament Road, the same day, was still ‘Rajapaksa’, whether it is good or bad. The reason for the ‘illegal protest’ on 23 April in front of the Bribery Commissioner’s office is also Rajapaksa, whether it is right or wrong.  He was made an enigma with all the good, bad and the ugly pieces primarily by the more outspoken individuals of the UNP, via the media. Rajapaksa was made bigger than he really is by the current regime.  He is loved for good things, criticized for bad things and hated for ugly things, yet it is ‘Mahinda enigma’ that confronts even after 100 days of the Sirisena-Ranil regime. The phenomenon will continue to haunt them, unless they change strategy of diverting from Rajapaksa to other priorities.

Powerful slogan
How is it possible that a defeated president seems to be the most popular politician in the country? There is an innovatively subversive act, especially by the ‘gang of four’, presented, which could not be countered by the current regime as they had to ‘deliver’ their unfulfillable 100 day agenda and be ‘Mr. Cleans’ for a fresh mandate. The 5.8 million votes for Rajapaksa (Panas ata Laskshya) slogan was much more powerfully marketed than the January 8th  presidential victor’s 6.2 million votes (Hata Delakshya). The gang sold it well and its imagination was caught not only by the 58 lakhs of people but has already affected the 62 lakhs that voted for the common candidate. This marks the Rajapaksa centrepiece in politics, defeated, but non-vanquishable. Its once again Rajapaksa who features as the political centre piece in these debates and protests. The former president’s supporters, every single day, make the defeated Rajapaksa more powerful among the masses. The new regime never envisaged this scenario. The regime has to take control if they wish to be re-elected and form the next government. It may not be a national government, like at present, but a deeply splintered house of controversies and the national question will inevitably be pushed to the back burner. Conflicts even violence could be a reality, a recipe for an uprising.

The Sirisena regime lacks charisma unlike during the last campaign to appeal to peoples’ imagination. Most stalwarts of the UNP seem to settle down comfortably with their 100 day portfolios. They spent a lot of time touring the globe to amend the ‘disjointed relations’ which according to them was the curse of the last regime. Modi’s arrival in March, Sirisena also met the Chinese President in March, and US Secretary of State, John Kerry’s visit in May will serve as fine fodder to the ‘gang of four’ and the other ‘disgruntled pockets’ across the country to label Sirisena as the ‘new Yankee Dickie’, the ‘infamous imperial baptism’ of J. R. Jayewardene. It is Rajapaksa yet again who will become the ‘Ruhunu man’ standing up to the imperial powers.
The biggest and the most unforeseen political rivalry for the Sirisena-Ranil regime is not necessarily ‘Mahinda the man, but ‘Mahinda the phenomenon’. They created it with their own ill-prioritized agenda and the hurried and pointless ‘100 day lame urgency for a political Nirvana’. Rajapaksa has become, for them, the elephant in the room. Wherever they move, whatever they do, Rajapaksa has become their deepest political canker within the political landscape of post presidential election era. None in Ranil’s government is able to have a decent political debate without reference to ‘Rajapkasa’. The more they isolate and criticize him, the more he seems to become popular among the voters.   Failure on the part of the current regime is the mishandling of ‘the Mahinda phenomenon’. The months old same hymn is being sung for the wrongs of the previous regime and it hasn’t done any good for the current regime, including the JVP and TNA. People are aware of the individuals in these parties and simply are fed up with the talk shows and displays of file carriers to the various inspectors without tangible delivery. Wigneswaren’s two nation theory brought new fears of separatist ideology among people.  ‘Mahinda phenomenon’ is not rocket science or a magic of Medamulana. It’s the political traits mingled with charm that communicates to the ordinary that captures the politico-cultural-social imagination of our people. Sheer luck is also on his side with a band of very loyal fellow politicians.
It is reported that Rajakasa asked for people’s pardon the other day in Tangalle for the mistakes he has done, both of omission and commission, still creating an aura far more impactful than any other. He brought more political ingredient into ‘the phenomenon’. He may or may not win an election, but ‘the phenomenon’ has successfully affected the 62 lakhs of people who desired ‘change’.

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